In Defense of Darkness

darklandscape Earlier this year, Leigh blogged about liking lighter romance. I enjoyed her piece and it got me thinking about my own views on tone in the books I prefer to read. I certainly don’t mind humorous romance or laugh out loud slapstick in the least. The book within a book from What Happens in London is one of my romance reading highlights! However, I have a soft spot for the dark and angsty, or at least the dramatic and serious, and many books on my keeper shelf feature heroes and heroines who really had to work for that happy ending.

Judging by the appeal of authors such as Anne Stuart or Laura Kinsale, I’m not the only one who reads this way. One would never mistake Stuart’s dark, dangerous men for the overgrown frat boy rakes of lighter tales. Stuart’s men aren’t just cuddly “bad boys”; the aura of danger they carry is real. If I had any sense, I’d run the other way, but something about seeing those angsty characters protect and love someone really gets me. Something about the amount of control it takes to maintain that balance of danger and safety, good and evil just seems terribly sexy, and she writes that dynamic so well.

In addition, darker romances really bring home that point about the redemptive power of love. Think about Flowers From the Storm by Laura Kinsale. Christian, felled by a stroke, clings desperately to Maddy but they also fall in love and it’s a devastating and beautiful journey. A Scotsman in Love by Karen Ranney also comes to mind. Ranney’s tale of love between a wounded, betrayed artist and her grieving widower neighbor wrings one out, but the healing power of love shines through more brightly in the darkness of Margaret and Robert’s lives than it could in a frothy comedic romp of a story.

While some of the light and fluffy books definitely have their poignant side, I find that darker romances – at least the good ones -tend to go a little deeper inside people’s hearts. Authors tease out those warm, fuzzy feelings but they also come up with some parts of characters that aren’t all sweetness and light with bluebirds twittering around rainbows. Perhaps Patricia Gaffney’s Wyckerly trilogy rings a bell with some readers. In To Have and to Hold, the heroine is a convicted murderer and the jaded magistrate hero Sebastian builds a relationship with her that comes off both creepy and yet deeply emotional – and without spoiling the plot, let’s just say it manages to save them both.

And that’s just one book in the trilogy. All three are excellent, and all explore darker territory than your average “love and laughter” romance. One could say the same about Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Miller’s Kill books. While technically mystery rather than romance, the relationship that runs through the series truly holds it all together. Watching Russell Van Alstyne and Claire Fergusson learn to deal with a relationship fraught with moral dilemmas, age differences, past baggage, and so many more issues takes readers through all kinds of emotional terrain. Some parts of this journey may warm the heart or even make one chuckle, but at other points, such as when the two realize they are attracted but can do nothing about it without violating codes of ethics, readers see real anguish as well. I value this series not just for the mysteries, but also for these lead characters to whom I’ve grown very attached as I have followed them through both good and bad places on their journey together. If I read only the lighter side of romance, I’d miss these transformational journeys and without seeing the dark, I’m not sure I’d fully appreciate the light. While I enjoy the occasional breezy escape, I sometimes need that introspection or that powerful emotional punch to the gut that one gets from visiting the darker side of the romance aisle.

– Lynn Spencer

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